Thailand tightens security as opposition plans 'million man march'

The Red Shirts, supporters of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006, aim to bring a million supporters into the city's streets.

BANGKOK // Security was tight in Thailand's capital yesterday ahead of a planned "million man" march this weekend by activists intent on toppling the government. Around 6,500 followers of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) staged early demonstrations in Bangkok yesterday, a foretaste of what may lie ahead tomorrow when tens of thousands are expected to hit the city's streets. The activists are more commonly known as "Red Shirts" because of the colour of the informal uniform they wear.

On the outskirts of Bangkok, and in the north and north-east of the country, where most of the Red Shirts' support is, thousands have already gathered. "We plan to close the city down," Sean Boonpracong, a spokesman for the protesters, said. "Though only through peaceful protest." Special security arrangements are already in force in Bangkok and surrounding areas. More than 50,000 police and security forces have been drafted in to help keep law and order, amid increasing fears of violence. At least another 40,000 civilian volunteers and soldiers are on standby.

The Red Shirts, supporters of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006, aim to bring a million supporters into the city's streets. They are demanding the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. "We want [prime minister] Abhisit to dissolve parliament or suppress our movement," Jaran Ditapichai, one of the protest organisers, said. The protests come two weeks after Thailand's top court confiscated US$1.4 billion (Dh5.1bn) of Mr Thaksin's assets and are the latest chapter in a political crisis that has beset Thailand since 2006.

The Red Shirts mainly represent the rural poor, who benefited from Mr Thaksin's policies and say the prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government is elitist, military-backed and ignores their democratic rights. Most analysts believe the situation is extremely precarious. "The country is certainly in real flux," Kevin Hewison, a Thai expert and professor at the University of North Carolina, said. "Thousands and thousands of angry Red Shirts are heading down from the north-east - it will be the biggest demonstration Thailand has seen for nearly 20 years, even if it falls short of a million people - and if the organisers cannot keep control, Bangkok could easily burn."

The Red Shirt leaders insist that if there is any violence it will be because of government provocation. "No government would crack down on peaceful demonstrations like this," said Mr Jaran, as he led a small rally in the centre of Bangkok yesterday. There seems little likelihood, though, the protesters will get their demand that parliament be dissolved. "The government is not in the position to bow to any threats," Mr Abhisit, said yesterday. "It will listen only to petitions made properly under the constitution. A threat is not acceptable."

Small groups of armed soldiers were patrolling the city's commercial areas yesterday and keeping a watchful eye on the main transport links, the underground and skytrain. Lorry-loads of soldiers were positioned throughout key parts of the city. Several public events planned for the weekend have been postponed or cancelled including key Thai Premier League football matches, which have been rescheduled.

Most schools and universities in central Bangkok have been closed indefinitely. Banks in the main commercial areas were also closed. Many offices in Bangkok's business districts closed early. The United Nations sent their staff home and declared Monday a holiday. Throughout the north and north-east, Red Shirt rallies have been gathering pace. In many provincial towns across the country's poorest regions, hundreds of UDD supporters have been meeting and getting ready to travel to Bangkok for tomorrow's demonstration.

The plan is for most of them to be transported down to the capital city in pickup trucks and vans. Military checkpoints throughout the country have been stopping and searching vehicles for concealed weapons in a bid to slow down their progress. "The government is clearly rattled," Prof Hewison said. When the pickups and vans get to the outskirts of Bangkok, later today, they will be stopped altogether. No vans or trucks with non-Bangkok registration and number plates will be allowed through, an army spokesman said.

But the government will provide transport for those who park their vehicles, said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government spokesman. * The National